Effective intercultural communication

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.


When interacting with other people, we bring with us an array of assumptions, values and beliefs. As communities and the workforce become increasingly diverse, it is more important than ever to learn how to interact with a range of people, different from us in many ways. The benefits of communicating with a varied range of cultures are immense, as we can learn much from others. This article explains more about human behaviour, and provides some tips for communicating effectively with people from other cultures.

Working with other people is not always easy and it can be especially difficult when working within a group which is culturally diverse. Everything you say, how you say it, when you say it, where you say it – all reveal more than you realise about you and your cultural background. That is why interacting with such a range of people can be so challenging: there are many cultural nuances that act as barriers which get in the way of communication and cause discomfort or ill feeling between people. Unfortunately, human nature causes us to use these barriers to assume and form prejudices before getting to know the individual.

What is culture?

Culture is a complex concept, with many different definitions. However, it can be defined simply as a group or community with which we share common experiences and which influences how we relate to the world. These groups include demographic or social groups such as race, religion, colour, gender, country of birth, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, education, economic status, class and geographic origin (i.e. where you live). The differences between and within these groups are often regarded as barriers to effective interaction. However, with the increasing integration of different cultures, languages, values and beliefs into the workplace, it is more important than ever to understand, empathise with and embrace these differences in order to interact effectively.

We define ourselves by these social groups, so it is impossible for them not to have a bearing on our interactions with others. We do not start any interaction from a completely neutral perspective – we bring a range of values, assumptions and beliefs, all linked to the social factors that shape our identity. As such, the way we interact with others as a result of their gender, class, race, religion, etc. will have a great bearing on the outcome of the interaction.

Communication in the culturally diverse workplace

Communication in the workplace is more difficult than ever because of the growing numbers of minority groups entering the workforce. It is therefore inevitable that there are going to be communication barriers. Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings can often get in the way of effective communication, so it is important to develop expertise in cross-cultural communication. Barriers can be conquered with patience, tolerance and understanding. Some of these barriers are outlined below.

1. Language

Language proficiency affects every aspect of a person's life. Lack of fluency in the predominant language of the workplace has a major impact on people's ability to get information about work and conditions, negotiate the recruitment and selection process successfully, and participate fully in workplace and social activities.

2. Status

Most cultures include a social hierarchy, which can create issues in workplace communications. For example, it may be the case that men from some cultural backgrounds will not adapt easily to working equally with women or having female supervisors. Or someone from an upper-class background may have difficulty taking orders from someone from a lower-class background. Understanding the relationship between the sexes and the roles assigned in various cultures will provide an insight into how staff from particular cultural groups might work in a given situation.

3. Body language and non-verbal communication

Cultural differences in non-verbal behaviours are an extremely common source of misunderstandings and conflict in the workplace. For instance, in the West, eye contact is interpreted as an indication of interest, credibility and honesty. If there is a lack of eye contact, it can be interpreted as shiftiness, coldness and disinterest. However, in some cultures, averted eyes are a sign of courtesy and respect. Being aware of these distinctions will help to reduce negative impressions in inter-cultural communications.

4. Personal space

People from different social and cultural backgrounds may have different 'comfort zones' – some may like more distance, some may prefer to get close. Continually invading another individual's personal space can cause discomfort and may be construed as harassment in some cultures, so it is important to understand and observe this when interacting with other people.

5. Religion

In many cultures, religion dominates life in a way that may be difficult to understand. The needs associated with religious commitments have to be understood, respected and sensitively negotiated within the workplace. For example, some religions must refrain from working on certain days or times, such as holy days. Clear communication on both sides about these issues should be encouraged.

6. Personal appearance

Grooming, eating habits and dress vary between cultures. Some people may choose to wear their national dress or religious garments to work. However, this may cause problems or health and safety issues in some workplaces (e.g. factories, and restaurants). Policies on dress code need to be developed sensitively and pragmatically.

Handling all of these situations sensitively and helpfully will help to avoid unnecessary conflict and distress. 

Tips for improving communication between cultures

  • Use a variety of communication methods. Written and visual materials can be used to clarify verbal content; for example, posters, leaflets and brochures can all help to get the message across.
  • Respond to what is being said, not how it is said – acknowledge the other person's opinion. Cultural communication styles can vary markedly and what may be interpreted as rude or evasive could just be a stylistic feature of the speaker's first language.
  • Use language that is inclusive. To be inclusive:
  • avoid using slang, jargon and acronyms or give clear explanations of them
  • talk about one topic at a time
  • use straightforward sentences and speak clearly
  • use familiar words and repeat important messages if necessary
  • where necessary, check for understanding by asking the other person to restate the key points
  • ask for clarification instead of making assumptions when unsure about what the speaker means
  • be aware that some people need time to mentally translate from their first language, particularly conceptual or abstract language
  • Be aware that a natural communication style is characterised by idiom, colloquialisms, slang and rapid delivery. This style can build rapport and create solidarity in a monocultural setting. However, in diverse environments it can unintentionally exclude.
  • Provide opportunities for people to develop their language skills and interact with people from different cultures. Workplace communication involves everybody in the organisation –everybody has a role in developing and improving it.

Conclusion

People often make judgements on others based on their own beliefs and values. Using these values to judge others causes differing attitudes and a lack of understanding. A basic understanding of cultural diversity is the key to effective interpersonal communication: seeing people from their cultural perspective will give you a better idea of who they are and not what you think they are.

Key points for successful intercultural communication

  • Keep an open mind at all times, focusing on what you hear, not what you see.
  • Admire and respect other cultures, as we can learn a lot from others.
  • Recognise your own cultural bias and how it is different from the people you are dealing with.
  • Be aware of how you act around people: some jokes, words, expressions or phrases may be offensive to people with a different background from you.
  • Cultures and customs vary from person to person. Pay attention to everything, from tone of voice to gestures in order to increase your understanding.
  • Practise. The more you communicate with other people, the better you will become at it.

Topics

  • Career mentoring resources

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